Chatham onstage with Oneida guitarist Hanoi “Baby” Jane. The composer describes his collaborations with the band as “a marriage made in heaven.” Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography

Did you have any plan at all when you set out to make this album with Oneida? It comes across almost as pure improvisation.
We all have our particular ways of playing. For example, we might say, “Okay, Shahin is going to start this improvisation, and we’ll follow him,” and then we’d riff off what he was doing. Or in another instance, it would be Hanoi Jane’s turn, and we’d follow him. So it was like a conversation. I should underline though, these pieces started as improvisations, but they became finished pieces of music. When we play live, “You Get Brighter” always starts the same way, and it always sounds more or less the same. There are individual differences because we’re not playing from sheet music, so the performance can depend on how we’re feeling, but the piece always has its characteristic sound that’s distinct from “Bad Brains” or “Civil Weather” or anything else on the album.

Still, by leaning on improvisation, that means you have to listen closely to each other.
That’s what I also should mention: everyone in Oneida is just so generous and supportive. When someone is playing, and they’re doing something “soloistic” and it draws to an end, you count on the other people to know when that’s going to be, and to jump in and keep the energy going. This band is very good at doing that. And on a personal level, for a couple of years there, we were really doing a lot of playing together and touring together, so I really felt part of the band.

How did you first come across the Line 6 DL4?
Well, after I made A Crimson Grail, the question I had was, what’s my next step? Am I gonna write something for a thousand electric guitars or something ridiculous? And I decided that I wanted to come back to primal music-making on my own, but I wanted it to sound like there was a lot of people, and that’s when I started using loopers. By then the Line 6 was a pretty common and famous one. What I liked about it was a setting that’s very similar to the Terry Riley “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band” sound [on Riley’s 1969 album A Rainbow in Curved Air]—otherwise known as Frippertronics.

“The problem with computers is if something goes wrong onstage, you’re not gonna figure it out if it happens during the concert.
It’s just too complex.”

What Robert Fripp did, and what Terry Riley did 10 years before him, was to set up two Revox tape recorders 20 feet apart, and have the reel of one going to the reel of the other, thereby creating a long delay and feeding the sound of the second Revox into the first. It’s a really great sound that allowed Fripp to get the effects that he did on his recordings of the ’70s—and Terry obviously had an impact with “Poppy Nogood” in the ’60s. It’s this very eternal effect.

So in my original setup, I used three Line 6s. I put one loop at eight seconds, the second one at nine seconds, and the third one at 10 seconds. Then I would send them to the extreme left channel, the extreme right, and the center, in that order. And through the use of a Voodoo Lab amp selector, I was able to play a riff on guitar, for example, and put it into the left channel—which was looping at eight seconds, right?—then I’d play the same riff to the next channel, with the second Line 6 at nine seconds. I’d play exactly the same riff, but because the loops were different lengths, they started phasing each other, in a Steve Reich piano-phased kind of way. So instead of hearing the loop, you hear a melody that takes eight-times-nine seconds before it repeats. And because I’m using three loopers, it doesn’t repeat for a long time. So it’s this constantly changing and slowly evolving riff that happens.

That sounds, too, like Pythagorean Dream—the solo album you put out last year.
This is the basis, but with that I added the guitar in a dropped-D tuning—in fact, a Pythagorean tuning. The low E string is tuned down to a D, and then I tune the B string to the seventh overtone of the D string, which is a very flat C. It ends up being a bit flatter than an equal-tempered C. It’s really beautiful.

Rhys Chatham’s Gear

Fender Telecaster (circa 2007)

Fender Twin

Line 6 DL4 (three, for recording)
ART Studio V3 Tube MP preamp (tour)
Boomerang III (tour)
Voodoo Lab Amp Selector
MXR equalizer
Sonic Research Turbo Tuner ST-300

Strings and Picks
D’Addario EXL140 Light Top/Heavy Bottom (.010–.052)

So you’re describing just intonation?
Exactly. If you take that low D string and play a harmonic on the 15th fret, that’ll be the seventh overtone, so I tune up the B string to that. “The Well Tuned Guitar” with Oneida uses that tuning, which meant everybody had to retune their guitars. That was no problem for Baby Jane and Shahin. The only thing that’s weird about it, for someone who isn’t used to working in just intonation, is the C. So the tuning is a low D–A–D, then the A octave, and then you come to that C. But it’s just a simple matter of playing that harmonic and you’re there. Then the top note is a D.

Did you come in with any pre-composed
pieces for Oneida specifically?

Various cuts on the record, like “You Get Brighter” and “Bad Brains” and “Civil Weather,” all those came out of these jam sessions. But yeah, the original idea for the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York [in 2012], which was where we first played together for an audience, was that I was supposed to write pieces for Oneida. “The Well Tuned Guitar” was the first one. The way I went about writing that was completely intuitive, using rhythms that are characteristic of my work coming out of Guitar Trio onwards. The thing that was different about it was primarily the tuning.

The other piece was “The Mabinogian,” which is named for an early Welsh version of the King Arthur story that we’re all familiar with. I just used that title because I was reading it at the time. It was all completely written out, and they were actually a little bit nervous playing it. It’s not something they do every day, like classical musicians do. It worked out really nicely, and we performed it a number of times, but for the album we decided to completely mess it up. I ended up thinking that was a really good idea. “The Well Tuned Guitar,” in the recorded version, is pretty much the way it originally sounded, although there are heavy effects on it. “The Mabinogian,” on the other hand, is completely electronified and distorted. I was happy with the result because it blended in more with the album and made it more like an Oneida piece.

At the All Tomorrow’s Parties performance you guys did together in 2013, it looks like you’re standing behind a laptop.
You know what I was using it for? A stopwatch. [Laughs].